Where Does Your Food Come From?

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Cassie Pence

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Most of us navigate the grocery store thinking an apple is an apple is an apple and an egg is an egg is an egg. And if there is a super sale on ribs, we usually think, “Lucky us, let's have a barbecue!”

We often don't stop to consider where the apple was grown and how, or if the hen had pasture to walk on or was she trapped in a cage smaller than an 81⁄2-by-11 piece of paper? (Industry standard, by the way.) And if there is a sale (especially if there is a sale), we're blinded by the savings and fail to ask: Were growth hormones used in the production of this pig? Were antibiotics administered?

The founder of Real Time Farms, Cara Rosaen, thinks most of us fail to ask these important questions about where our food comes from because we think “that the food system has magically taken care of itself.”

“But we know this is really not the case,” Rosaen said during TEDx Manhattan's “Changing the Way We Eat.” A series of thinkers and doers in the food system spoke at the event.

The other big issue, Rosaen said, is the lack of transparency in the food system, which makes answering these types of food questions extremely difficult. Most of our information on food origin comes from marketers. Even McDonald's is running an ad campaign profiling its “ranchers” to help tell the burger story. But do you think all of its meat producers look like the rancher in the commercial? Yeah, I don't either.

But Rosaen is out to lift the veil on our food system with Real Time Farms, a website (www.realtimefarms.com) where she hopes to document the entire food system, from every farm to every restaurant to every food artisan and even the cafeterias in our schools — an ambitious vision. It's been live about a year and so far has documented 4,800 farms and artisans with 32,000 photos and 11,000 menu items.

“If we know where our food comes, and we think it should be better, we have the opportunity to change that,” Rosaen said in her talk.

What's really cool about Real Time Farms is that it's user-generated. So people like you and me, farmers, ranchers and artisans add information and photos about the produce and meats we buy, grow or make. We tell the rest of the passionate food community how it was grown, who grew it and where. Real Time Farms has empowered interns to build content, too. For three months, Real Time Farms' Food Warriors document food, farms and artisans in their area. And you don't have to be typical intern age. So far, Food Warriors have run the age gamut from 18 to 63.

Restaurants, food carts and eateries share exactly which farms and artisans their ingredients come from under “Where to Eat.” No restaurants in Colorado have shared yet, but in downtown Detroit, Bistro Bella Vita posted its menu and then linked several items from it. For example, Bella Vita's mushroom polenta features Grassfield's gouda. Click on the Grassfield's Cheese link and learn which farmers' markets you can buy the gouda from directly and learn that the farm also sells eggs and milk.

Soon to come, Rosaen said, is where to find grass-fed beef in your area.

The biggest challenge I see with Real Time Farms is the big companies that owe us the most transparency (Sysco and U.S. Food Service come to mind) and currently have the least transparency are probably the least likely candidates to post because they don't want us to know where their food comes from. But as Real Time Farms' map fills in with food producers that have nothing to hide, perhaps the fact of being absent from the site is transparent enough. Perhaps there will be so many good choices documented, we won't need to turn to big companies like Sysco and U.S Food Service to source our food.

One of the Real Time Farms' chefs pointed out to Rosaen that people spend so much time researching what TV they are going to buy, but will purchase a chicken from anywhere. This, my food-eating friends, has to change — and I think Real Time Farms is going to help us do it.

This article originally appeared on vaildaily.com. It is re-posted here with permission from the author.

THE WRITER: Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the EagleVail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and Slow Food Vail Valley.

Have you used Real Time Farms yet? Did you find it helpful?